The Atlantic has an amazing gallery of photographs from North Korea. Every photograph in the set is striking, but none more than the first one.
There is a surreal, science-fictional quality to this photograph. All of the buildings have a similar blue-gray color, streaked with mold and decay. Every window seems to be dark. A single automobile lurks at the bottom margins of the shot, with a lonely pair of pedestrians nearby. Were it not for their presence, this would seem to be a dead city, the victim of some apocalyptic evacuation. And I experienced a delirious shiver of ostranenie when I realized that perhaps the strangest thing about the city was that it bore no scar of advertising.
The Pyongyang of this photograph doesn’t seem like a real place. It seems rather like a pure archetype, an image of the Stalinist wasteland that has populated the Western imagination of the Soviet states since the 1950s. It seems impossible for any real city to be so desolate. This is a city where the worst thing we can imagine has already happened. This is the London of 1984. This is City 17.
My in-laws lived their entire lives in Communist Romania, under the dictator Ceausescu until his deposal in 1989. They have fond memories of this time, and will often tell me wistfully of how peaceful and orderly their world was before the turbulence of the revolution. My wife remembers playing with her sisters while they stood in line to buy milk, and pinching the baby so that people would let them move forward in line. They had to wait in line for milk, because it was rarely available and tightly rationed, but this was normal and expected. She has pictures of herself, dressed in a new dress with her hair up in bows, singing the anthem beneath the portrait of Ceausescu on the schoolhouse wall. They lived in what we would consider dire poverty and repression, but these facts did not define their lives. They managed to get married, to have children, to play with their classmates and dress in new clothes, to sing songs and bicker with their sisters.
This is not to say that there were no difficulties, that we should envy the Communist system, or that we should make light of its crimes. It is rather to marvel at the resiliency of those who lived there. Though they lived in a dystopia, they still lived. No one told them that it was a dystopia and that they were obliged to be unhappy. And unburdened by that knowledge, many of them were happy.
Another striking photograph from the set above shows two female soldiers walking hand-in-hand down a crowded street. They aren’t looking at the photographer. They aren’t performing at a state-sponsored event meant to honor the regime. Nor are they characters in a drama meant to impress on us the horror of their situation. They’re living their lives.